Bristol, TN Filling Station Explosion, Feb 1947


Bristol, Tenn.-Va. -- (AP) -- An official investigation into Bristol's disastrous filling station explosion, which Thursday killed five men, critically injured another and caused minor injuries to approximately a dozen other persons, will be conducted by two Tennessee deputy fire marshalls.
Announcement of the investigation into the blast, which resulted in property damage estimated at nearly $100,000, was made Friday by Mayor Fred V. Vance who said he had requested it in the hope that "finding the cause may go a long way toward preventing any similar tragedies in the city."
Mayor Vance said he had been told by James M. McCormick, Tennessee Commissioner of Insurance and banking, that Deputies Virgil Kitts and Tyler Greene, of Nashville, have been assigned to ascertain the caue of the explosion.
Meanwhile, Fire Chief Walter A. Buckles, of Bristol, Tenn., said that the explosion at Robinette's Service Station could have been caused by only one thing.
"Gasoline fumes had leaked into the basement and in some manner became ignited," he explained. "How the fumes became ignited, of course, is a matter of supposition, but it is my belief that a spark from an air compressor motor in the basement was the cause. It could not have been caused by a lighted cigarette."
"The explosion did not come from the gasoline tanks. Heavy concrete, which rained on the tanks, broke them and allowed the gasoline to pour out, feeding the flames, but the tanks themselves did not explode."
Fire Chief Hugh Worley, of Bristol, Va., the other half of this twin city, said that three gasoline storage tanks were located in the basement of the filling station, unburied and without proper provision, for ventilation. He said the air compressor motor, which probably had been started when the service station operator filled a tire for a customer, was an old brush-type motor, which frequently throws off a strong spark. Normal ventilation may have been closed off by an accumulation of snow and ice, he added.
Both fire departments began a thorough investigation of all other service stations in the city Friday. City ordinances forbid the type of gasoline storage used at the demolished station, but Robinette's property was built before the ordinances were enacted, a city official said Friday.
Chief Worley said that the life of one of the men, still alive when firemen arrived might have been saved if the fire departments had possessed foamite generators to blanket the flames. Valiant firemen of both departments attempted to rescue the men pinned under the wreckage Thursday before the scorching flames were quelled by water, which had to be used in the absence of foamite, considered far more effective in gasoline fires.
"It was awful. It was awful," JASPER RICHARDSON, 41, a customer at the station when the blast occurred, murmured from his hospital bed here Friday. RICHARDSON, a thread mill employe, was the only person who was in the service station or its areaway to survive the blast. He was rescued from the ruins 20 minutes after the explosion by firemen and rushed to King's Mountain Memorial Hospital where his condition is still described as "critical."
RICHARDSON was unable in brief periods of consciousness Friday, to remember the events which immediately preceded and followed the explosion. Whispering questions of "what happened?" to relatives around his bed, he asked if he had been in an automobile accident.
"Something blew up and I can't find my car keys," was the closest he came to an account of the tragedy.
Killed in the terrific blast, which left the service station at a busy corner on the edge of downtown Bristol a blazing, shapeless pile of rubble, were:
FRANK ROBINETTE, SR., 51, owner of the establishment.
his son, FRANK ROBINETTE, JR., 25, who assisted his father in the operation of the station.
JOSEPH S. SMITHSON, 32, of Pulaski, Va.
CHARLES GENTRY, 48, of the Holston Valley section near Bristol, Tenn.
HENRY HOWARD DATER, 31, of the Holston Valley section near Bristol, Tenn.
SMITHSON, GENTRY and DARTER had come to the station to get cars they had parked there.
A thorough check of the rubble that once was a masonry building convinced searchers that there were no additional deaths from Thursday's explosion.

Kingsport News Tennessee 1947-03-01